Climbing Masada at Dawn

Israel, Traveling Solo & Together — By on December 29, 2011 at 9:01 pm
By Rachel Khona
Special to Lost Girls 
Masada Cavorting with inebriated Germans at a Munich beer hall? Count me in. Cycling the lush green coast of Dingle Peninsula in Ireland? Sounds festive! Scaling a mountain before dawn to see ruins? I would rather eat glass.

Even if it is Masada, site of Israel’s most revered pilgrimage.

I am a city girl more prone to swigging glasses of wine until the wee hours while discussing the impact of America’s worldwide cultural hegemony. The idea of waking up at 3 a.m. instead of going to bed at 3 a.m. seemed like nothing short of torture. But every one of my Israeli friends insisted that I couldn’t leave Israel without climbing the much-revered Masada.

Masada is the site of an ancient palace complex constructed by the Judean King Herod between 37 and 31 BC. The compound sits high above on remote rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. This architectural wonder constructed in the Roman Classical style was engineered with a sophisticated water system and housed up to 1000 people, including those trying to flee Roman rule in Jerusalem as well as the rebel Sicarii Jews.  All in all the construction was a pretty remarkable feat for King Herod to pull off back in the day, especially considering its isolation.

But that’s not why Masada is so revered by Jews worldwide.  Just another a set of ruins, Masada is not.

Masada Masada is symbolic, as it was the last stand for the Jews against the Roman Empire. When the Romans resolved to attack Masada in the first century CE, the inhabitants decided they would not surrender. Rather than be enslaved by the Romans, the settlers opted for mass suicide. But not before setting everything on fire.

For nearly two millennia Masada remained just another story in Jewish history. It wasn’t until the 19th century when archeologists stumbled upon the ruins and not until the 1960s that Masada was fully excavated.

Although it is somewhat controversial due to its suicidal ending, Masada remains a beacon of Jewish steadfastness in the face of oppression and a symbol of courage and heroism. As I was informed by my friend, Tami, climbing Masada at sunrise is a pilgrimage that every Israeli makes, and it was necessary if I wanted to truly experience the culture. Frankly, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t experience Masada via helicopter at a more acceptable hour like noon. Alas my questions fell upon deaf ears.

“That would be like going on a road trip across the U.S. and then complaining that you would rather fly. It makes no sense. The ancient settlers had to climb. To pay your respects, you have to climb,” Tami chided. “Besides, it’s too hot to climb during the day. You’ll fry.”

“Fine. Why can’t you come with me?” I asked.

“Because I’ve already done it. And I have to go to work. You’re going to Jerusalem anyway. Just sign up for one of those tours and go. You’ll enjoy it. Really, it’s beautiful.”

Despite my reservations, I decided the trip was necessary to truly experience the Israeli culture.  On the elected morning, I climbed into the tour van at 3 a.m., thankful for the one extra hour of sleep I would get on the ride over. When we finally arrived at 4 a.m., I still felt as though someone and hit me over the head with a sledgehammer. Stumbling out of the car, I stared bleary-eyed at the seemingly massive rock formation in front of me.

“OK guys, this is Masada! We are going to start climbing,” our guide chirped.

I didn’t know how on earth he could be so perky at this hour.

“It should take forty-five minutes to an hour depending on how fast you are,” he continued.

I felt myself grow tired just looking at the climb ahead of me. I started out with everyone else but was soon left on my own huffing and puffing my way up. It was pitch black, I was who-knows how many feet off the ground, and the path ahead was narrow and winding. My legs were almost Jello by the time I got to the top, a full twenty minutes after everyone else.

Masada It was still dark and eerily quiet, as the sun slowly started to rise over Jordan. All of a sudden, I didn’t notice my legs anymore.  I realized I was standing in the middle of history. The headiness of it all hit me as I gazed upon this olden civilization. Visiting Israel with all of its ancient history, diasporic and religious significance, and current-day strife, was mind-boggling enough. None of my other travels to Europe, Asia, or across the U.S. had prepared me for the intensity of visiting Masada. Far from the throbbing nightclubs and bars of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem it seemed a world away from anything modern. The Dead Sea, one of the world’s first spas and biblically a refuge for King David, bobbed below, enticing us with her aquamarine water and salt-covered shoreline. On the other side of the Dead Sea lay Jordan a country so close yet so significantly different.

Then there were the ruins. Masada’s violent history lay in front of me with her homes, barracks, synagogues, and bathhouses dotting the landscape. Much of Masada had been restored allowing us to see what life might have been like here over 2000 years ago. Even the Roman ramp built as part of the Romans siege still stands.

The climb was worth waking up for.

Descending was better since I had gravity on my side and I could see.

An hour later we were at the bottom, when I spotted something in the sky above us.

“What is that?” I asked the guide, hoping it wasn’t what I thought it was.

“A cable car. Some people don’t like to climb.”



Hailing from a magical land called New Jersey, Rachel is a writer and performer living somewhere in the 5th dimension.

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  • I missed out on Masada the first time I was in Israel, so when I went back last year, I made it a stop on my way to Aqaba/Eilat. Best decision I could have made! I am not Jewish, but the sense of history one gets while standing there, watching the sun rise over the Dead Sea just gives me goose bumps thinking about it.

    I am glad you didn’t see the cable care until afterwards! 🙂

  • Rachel says:

    In retrospect I’m glad I climbed, but I wouldn’t climb again! Not unless I was climbing with someone equally slow. Nothing like reliving those gym class moments!

  • Tony says:

    Wonderful tale… I’m inspired. I’m going in 2 weeks and will definitely do sunrise on Masada. Thanks,.